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Relay for Life event draws thousands for fight against cancer
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Three-month cancer survivor Penny Browning, center, walks Friday evening with her coworker support group at the Hall County Relay for Life at Road Atlanta. The Longstreet Cafe friends are, from left, Rhonda Kidd, Browning and Erika Carrillo. - photo by NAT GURLEY

The fight against cancer grew a little stronger Friday night and into this morning thanks to the devotion and generosity of local residents. 

Several thousand people turned out at the Relay for Life of Hall County annual event held at Road Atlanta in Braselton to raise money for cancer research. 

Now in its 21st year in Hall, the relay is the American Cancer Society’s biggest single fundraiser. 

Prior to the event, about 1,350 participants representing 100 teams, including families, churches, businesses and schools, had registered for the event, raising about $160,000 in the process. 

Relay officials said they expected the number of participants to grow throughout the night, with their goal to raise $300,000. 

But the event is more than fundraising. It’s an opportunity for people whose lives have been affected by cancer to stand up and be heard. People like Bennie Williams, 69, a colon cancer survivor sporting a purple T-shirt that read “Finish the Fight,” like the many hundreds of survivors in attendance.

To kick off the event, the crowd was led in a call-and-response chant of “celebrate, remember, fight back,” Relay for Life’s motto, from the music stage set on the Road Atlanta track. 

Then the crowd released hundreds of purple balloons into the air, cheering as they drifted up and up into the half-light dusk of a temperate spring night. 

With the celebration commenced, cancer survivors formed a parade line and walked laps around a makeshift track at Road Atlanta, passing booth after booth along the way. 

There were some booths that served snow cones to kids, others cooking hot dogs and passing out cold drinks, still more offering gift basket raffle prizes for a small donation. 

There were face painting booths and a fun house for kids, bean bag toss games and racing simulators. The smell of grilled food wafted through air, reminding of a county fair. There was even a beat-up SUV with “breast cancer” spelled out in paint on its headlights, people paying a few dollars to smash the car with a sledgehammer in a symbolic crushing of cancer. 

Then, leading the pack in the survivor walk, came Joel Sneed. Tall and lean, but fit, with a neatly cropped mustache and warm smile, Sneed looked like he’d never been sick in his life. 

But, in fact, the 66-year-old beat the 50-50 odds of surviving lymphoma that doctors gave him. He’s now been cancer free for nine years and three weeks. 

Sneed said he battled through a bone marrow transplant, plus round after round of radiation, and then returned to work as a construction project manager within three weeks of leaving the hospital. 

“If you were to eat an elephant, you got to take one bite at a time,” he said of his recovery. 

Sneed participates in the Relay for Life event every year, and this year he brought along friends from Hopewell Baptist Church to join him in walking the track. 

Sneed said every American at least knows someone who has been touched by cancer, making events like Relay for Life even more important in the fight to find a cure. 

Gloria Maddox, who beat back breast cancer a year ago, has participated in Relay for Life for 10 years now. 

She wore a proud smile as she reflected on the trials and tribulations of the past few years. 

Before Maddox was diagnosed with cancer, she had already spent years caring for her sick mother. 

“I went from a caregiver to a cancer survivor,” she said. “It’s different when it hits you.” 

Maddox said Relay for Life was important not only to celebrate her victory but to ensure that progress is made in cancer research. She said she worries about the history of cancer in her family and wonders whether her siblings might one day be stricken with the disease. Still, she said she’s determined to do all she can to raise awareness and funds. 

The event carried on into the early morning hours, running until 7 a.m., with live music and festivities keeping the celebration going strong. 

But time was also taken to remember those who have passed away from cancer. A memorial walk was held to honor their struggles and courage in battling such a devastating disease. 

Mark Ruis, 51, passed away from colon cancer just last week. His family and friends were on hand wearing matching T-shirts to pay tribute to his life. 

Ruis worked for Hall County government and was known as the “sweetest” man to friends, who also remarked on his talent as a guitar player. He battled cancer courageously for more than four years. 

His wife, Amanda, led their four children and friends around the track, standing tall and walking strong in difficult times.